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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Ash Wednesday 02/22/2012

Lent.  It comes from the Old English word for spring, that word being lengten which actually refers to the lengthening of the days at this time of year.  Thinking of Lent in connection with lengthening days does make more sense for us than connecting it with spring because the days are noticeably longer at this time of year while spring is still probably a ways off, even with the mild winter we’ve been having.

In any case, tonight we start the 40 day journey that will end with Holy Week, the cross of Good Friday and Easter resurrection.  For a long time Lent was observed as kind of an extended Good Friday with great emphasis on the Passion and death of Jesus throughout the 40 days along with reflection on our role in those events as part of sinful humanity and hence the need for confession and repentance in light of that sinfulness.  In the early church though, Lent was a time of preparation for baptism.  Adult baptism was the norm in those days so those desiring to be baptized would go through a period of instruction followed by baptism at the Easter Vigil which was the central service of the church year.  In recent years the church has encouraged a recovery of this emphasis, including greater focus on the Easter Vigil, in order to better understand our baptismal identity as our primary identity.  Consideration of the Passion can wait until Holy Week. 

Either way though, Lent continues to be a time of reflection on who we are.  That does include seeing ourselves as baptized and forgiven, but it still includes recognizing the sin that causes us to need that forgiveness.  The call to “return to the Lord your God,” is always part of Lent, and so we begin.  Now is the acceptable time.  The question that always hangs out there though is how are we supposed to do it; what’s the right way to observe Lent.  There are the traditional disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving and they certainly can be helpful approaches to Lent, but still, I don’t think there is one right way to do it.  

One suggestion I would have is to approach Lent around the theme of  reconciliation.  Tonight’s reading from Corinthians begins “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”  Reconcile is a word that doesn’t get used a whole lot in the Bible.  The Greek word used here only shows up 6 times in the New Testament, one of them in the verse I just read, three of the others in the two verses that precede this, so this is the mother lode in regard to reconciliation.  In Greek literature outside of the New Testament reconciliation had to do with exchange, the exchange of hostility for friendship, anger for love, war for peace, things like that.  When Paul uses the word it has to do with God’s exchange of a judgmental relationship with humanity for a relationship based on forgiveness, Paul’s understanding being that this exchange is accomplished through Jesus Christ.

I also looked up reconcile in an English dictionary; there were five definitions and I think each of them can be useful in thinking about Ash Wednesday and Lent.  The first definition for reconcile was to accept or be resigned to something not desired; “He was reconciled to his fate.”  That’s what the ashes are all about.  “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  In receiving the ashes, we acknowledge and accept our mortality, we accept the fact that we are going to die which isn’t something that we desire very much or even want to think about very much. 

It’s funny though; I’ve mentioned before that the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is quite popular.  People who aren’t particularly Catholic or even very religious at all line up outside Catholic churches in cities like Chicago to get ashed.  Is there something comforting about being reconciled to our mortality, about admitting that we are vulnerable and not as in control as we often pretend to be? 

The second definition is to win over to friendliness; to reconcile hostile persons.  That certainly touches on what Paul was getting at with the important distinction that this winning over to friendliness is done from God’s side.  Related to definition #1, we’re not in control.  The reconciliation is initiated by God and played out in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Paul’s call to his readers to be reconciled is a call to accept the gift.  In many places he offers lists of behaviors he sees as being appropriate responses to the acceptance of the gift, but the behaviors are not in order to be reconciled.  That is done for us.

The third definition of reconcile is to compose or settle a quarrel or dispute.  This too is very Lenten because part of what we do tonight and throughout Lent is to admit that there’s a problem.  “We have sinned by our fault, by our own fault, by our own most grievous fault, in thought word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.”  Our fault, our own fault, our own most grievous fault; that’s pretty harsh and it does acknowledge that there’s a problem, a dispute with God that needs to be settled. 

That leads into definition #4; to bring into agreement or harmony; to reconcile accounts as it were.  In being reconciled to God, that’s what happens.  The account of our sinfulness is brought to harmony by the forgiveness that is available to us.  In Psalm 130 there is a line, “If you Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand.”  That is the reality of our predicament as it is sometimes called, but the flip side of that reality is that God is not up there keeping score because the accounts have been reconciled.  In the verse just before tonight’s reading Paul writes, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” 

I was familiar with those four definitions of reconcile, but I wasn’t familiar with #5 which is to re-consecrate a desecrated church.  I guess what that means is that if for example old St. Joe’s downtown, which I think is just a storage building now, if it were ever refurbished and used as a worship space again it would have to be reconciled as a church. 

We are not desecrated churches, but figuratively tonight’s confession of sin ends on Maundy Thursday with the words of absolution, “In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.”  I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to see that as representing a re-consecration of us as individuals.

In any case, it does seem to me that this theme of reconciliation represents a good approach to the Lenten journey that begins tonight.  Reconciliation is initiated by God, but on the other hand it does require two parties; we can’t do it on our own, but we are partners in the process.  In one sense we are passive recipients of this gift of grace, in another sense, through the acts of confession and repentance we open our arms, as it were, to receive the gift.

“On behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”  I encourage you to take that phrase with you, beyond the rituals of tonight, as the days lengthen, as you experience the journey of Lent yet again, a journey that is about reconciliation.  Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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